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Feminist Theological Interpretation of the New Testament

Feminist Theological Interpretation of the New Testament

Robert Morgan
First published as Ch.2, in After Eve,
edited by Janet Martin Soskice.
Collins Marshall Pickering, 1990
Reproduced on our website with the necessary permissions

The sub-title of this collection, Women, Theology and the Christian Tradition, was intended to invite contributors either to select some historical aspect of that tradition's material concerning women, or to take up the methodological issue of how anyone doing theology, i.e. seeking to understand and communicate Christian faith, should handle this sometimes difficult and embarrassing material. Neither alternative involves actually doing 'feminist theology'. Most of us doubted that we were in a position to do it, but hoped that drawing up some of the relevant material or discussing how it might be used would encourage others better placed and equipped to perform what we agreed to be an important and necessary task. What follows will therefore not venture beyond prolegomena.

Such modesty was appropriate, at least on the part of the male historians, exegetes and theologians involved. If feminist theology were merely the ideological arm of a campaign to bring freedom and justice to women in the Church it might actually be more appropriate for men to take up the burden, and fulfil the law of Christ in love for the neighbour. But without minimising the Christian's commitment to justice, and the place of theology in that struggle, the main contribution of feminist theology should surely be found elsewhere.

Theology involves interpreting the tradition in the light of experience, and vice versa, and the essential contribution of feminist theology to the life of the Christian community is to articulate women's experience and ensure that it receives due weight in understanding and communicating the Christian gospel. An awareness of women's or anyone else's experience of oppression challenges all Christians to do what they can to remove it, but the motivations for such action lie in the gospel itself, as this can be adequately understood by all, and must be argued on that theological basis, not in terms of the historical experience that alerted the Church to the issue. It is a matter of Christian theology as such, not feminist theology in particular. This has a more radical responsibility: to draw out aspects of the gospel and its illumination of human experience which have undoubtedly been submerged by the impoverishment resulting from the massive male domination of Christian institutions and theological production.

Such theology must be done by women, and is one reason why the training of women theologians, and their appointment to positions of leadership in the Christian community, is a matter of some urgency. The famous 'principle of the unripeness of time' usually applicable in church politics (since religion is one thing men and even women do with their conservatism) is no longer applicable here. The gospel has to be heard proclaimed 'in a different voice', to borrow the title of Carol Gilligan's important book, as well as in the different languages of all nations, races and educational levels. In Christ these barriers are overcome, but that means that the gospel can be heard in many idioms, not that differences no longer exist, or can be safely ignored. It is striking that at mammoth meetings of the Society for New Testament Studies, behind whose formidable scholarly batteries stand much practical Christianity and deep theological commitment, there is barely a woman theologian or exegete to be seen. Even more shocking is the lack of much sense of incongruity about this.

The point of an opening disclaimer renouncing any intention of actually engaging in feminist theology is partly lest the title raise false expectations, but partly also to justify paying little attention to what has so far been done in this field, concentrating instead on how to do what ought to be done. We are still witnessing the very early stages of feminist theological interpretations of the New Testament and there is not much clarity about how they might develop. Only one New Testament scholar has so far made a major contribution. It therefore seems best to offer some distinctions and propose some guidelines which can be discussed by all, and to draw on a couple of texts and on the work of Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza only to illustrate the points made.

'Feminist theological interpretation' is an ambiguous as well as a clumsy phrase, because it is not clear which of the two adjectives is emphasised, or how they are related to each other. They could even be contradictory, since feminism and theology seern to be more often opposed than in agreement. The overlap implied by the phrase is a small corner of both fields. Feminist interpretation and theological interpretation are different, referring to different codes or frameworks in terms of which a text may be read, and with that in mind the most natural exegesis of the combined phrase is one that makes 'feminist theology' the code or framework in terms of which the New Testament is being read. But that would better be called 'feminist theology's interpretations of the New Testament'. That is still fairly ambiguous, but it is clear where the ambiguities lie: in the phrase 'feminist theology', which may be Christian, non-Christian or post- (i.e. anti-) Christian.

The phrase here chosen to identify our interpretative code, 'feminist theological', contains ambiguities of its own, as well as those it shares with the phrase 'feminist theology'. But these latter can at once be reduced by stating that only Christian theology is under consideration here. That does not dispel the ambiguity, because both 'Christian' and 'theology' are essentially contested concepts, but here too it is possible baldly to state a position: Theology has to do with God who is worshipped, i.e. it is parasitic upon some religion (since these are where God is named and worshipped), and requires an adjective identifying the religious tradition and community to which it belongs, however loosely. Christian theology is not to be confused with philosophical analysis of the concept of God (though it may include that) or with the scientific study of religion, which it also involves.

The distinction, despite overlap, between theology and philosophy of religion has to be underlined because in a European Christian context 'philosophy of religion' meant in effect 'philosophy of the Christian religion' (still the name of a chair in Oxford) and was scarcely distinguishable from Christians' natural theology. The echoes of this now quite distant Christian culture encourage modern theological rationalism. In the eighteenth century this could still express a Christian theology. Today it actually subverts religion by failing to take seriously the character and context of religious discourse. In a secularist and pluralist culture where only religions speak seriously of God, and usually do so on the basis of a claim to revelation, somehow enshrined or witnessed to in their tradition, especially (where applicable) their scriptures, a more 'confessional' style of theology is inescapable. The Christian religion refers to Jesus, its crucified and risen Lord, as the decisive revelation of God; Christian theology unfolds the response to that alleged revelation, and relates the rest of human knowledge and experience to that decisive event.

The boundaries of 'Christian' are admittedly disputed. The reference to a decisive saving revelation of God in Jesus is here taken as the essential criterion, leaving open (for present purposes) the question how it is rightly understood or best expressed. Some reference to Christian community is also essential, and the boundaries even less clear. But the confessional character of theology today, and therefore of theological interpretation, is one of the terms of reference implied by our title.

Restricting these reflections to prolegomena to a Christian feminist theological interpretation of Scripture means setting aside (with respect) Jewish feminist theological interpretation. It is possible for Jewish theologians to interpret the New Testament theologically, i.e. on the assumption that it speaks of God, albeit heretically; but they would not be engaged in scriptural interpretation, because it is not for them Scripture.

The boundaries of Christianity are harder to draw as against 'post-Christian' interpretations of the Bible because these contain some residue of Christianity and are in some cases clearly theological, albeit (to orthodox ears) heretical. For all its frequently aggressive secularism there is also a strong religious element in feminism which is sometimes contained by and sometimes breaks the banks of existing religions. To call 'post-Christian' feminism 'anti-Christian' is brutal but honest. The Christian community engages in healthy inner-theological conflict as disturbing new insights are absorbed, dead branches identified and pruned, and corruptions excised. The theological struggle of feminist Christians for what they consider a better understanding and practice of the gospel is entirely legitimate so long as they themselves remain open to challenge by the gospel at work in the community (often proclaimed by males), and to self-correction as a result of hearing it afresh. But to 'go out from us' (1 John 2.19, cf. 4.1), to leave the (sectarian) community and label oneself 'post-Christian' is (apart from being slightly superior and slightly precious) to risk abandoning the Christian theological task by cutting oneself off from the usual channels of grace and sources of knowledge of God. It substitutes the apostate's undifferendated war-cry (Ecrasez I'infâme) for the reformer's theological zeal. Both responses stem from the same perception of truth, but one is authentically Christian, the other in principle anti-Christian.

Non-Christian interpretations of the Bible are not necessarily anti-religious. The Bible is a public text, available to readers who have no connection with a religious community. Feminists of any religion or none may see propaganda potential in influencing the way such culturally still influential texts as the Bible are read, and so propose feminist readings of this material. But they will only be theological interpretations of the New Testament if there remains some fundamentally positive relationship to Christianity, however fractured. This does not exclude criticism of some of its statements, as we shall see. But the criticised statements will be recognised as inadequate statements about God who is worshipped, only within the ambience of a worshipping community. When the religious frame of reference is abandoned, theological interpretation withers, because theology is parasitic upon religion. Not even corrupt and out-dated forms of ecclesiastical framework can be abandoned without risk. For Christians, even strategic withdrawals are acts of desperation.

All this attempted clarification of what is meant by 'theological' in our title would be equally relevant to an essay on 'feminist theology's interpretation of the New Testament'. But the phrase 'feminist theological interpretation of the New Testament' is intended to throw the emphasis on the notion of 'theological interpretation' itself, and allow the adjective 'feminist' to qualify that phrase, rather than to have the adjective 'theological' qualifying 'feminist interpretation'. The difference of emphasis is significant for what follows. It means that our starting-point and essential theme is not feminist theology or feminist interpretation, but theological interpretation.

'Feminist interpretation of Scripture' might have brought us to the same starting-point, because the notion of Scripture implies a religious community finding in these writings reference to the God it worships. 'The New Testament' is also a theologically loaded phrase, referring to Christian Scripture. But that can equally now refer to the collection of twenty-seven books which has a place in Western culture, regardless of religious belief. It is therefore necessary to insert the word 'theological' in order to make explicit that it is Christian religious use of the Bible that is under consideration here, not the kind of biblical scholarship or feminist ideology which make no reference to the question of God. Both these are involved here, but as means not ends, means to Christian theology and practice, not the equally legitimate goals of biblical scholarship or feminism.

'Theological' is not the only word in our title that requires some explanation. Equally elusive is the word 'interpretation', which switches the focus away from exclusively exegetical concern with the texts being interpreted, and includes the other end of the interpretative act - the persons engaged in it. This 'modern end' is important because interpreters have their own aims and interests which only partly coincide with those of the biblical authors, and because these may influence how individual texts are read.

It is normal for biblical scholars to see their task as avoiding such distortions and explaining what the text is actually saying, i.e. what the linguistic conventions meant when it was written, not what some modern reader would like to think it means. This is correct, and linguistic and historical exegesis important. But when we ask why it is important, we find it hard to claim that it is all-important. Responsible exegesis is important because readers generally want to know what the text has to say. That is particularly clear when the Bible is read by Christians, because they presuppose it has something vital to teach them about God and the world, something which they need to hear. A theory of meaning that emphasises the creativity of interpreters at the expense of the content of the texts themselves is in principle undesirable even if in practice unavoidable. A second, more pragmatic argument for stable meanings, and against textual indeterminacy, also applies to scriptural interpretation. Textual exegesis of some, e.g. legal, texts is important because the community using them needs some shared understanding of their meaning. The grammatical meaning provides some basis for this.

Both these arguments for linguistic and historical exegesis appeal to the interests of the modern readers. Exegesis is not valuable purely for its own sake, but the readers, on whose account it is important, may have a variety of interests in the text, not all of which require historical exegesis, and some of which may imply a higher priority than strict exegesis. Depending on how a text is used, other factors may affect how it is understood. To take the legal example again: precedent is sometimes important, and an authoritative ruling may determine how a statute is understood within a civil community. The Bible seems different, because Christians expect to learn something from their Scripture; it is not for them (essentially) a law-book, even though it is often treated as such. But Christians do have other interests and the exegesis of particular texts in such a diverse collection of material poses problems. They look for a unity in their canon, and they need to assume that it is true and reliable - factual errors and moral inadequacies are a problem. Above all they need some kind of correspondence between their Scriptures and their own religious system of belief, and this has been a problem from the beginning for a movement whose Scriptures were written by authors and edited in a community that had never heard of Jesus.

As that implies, tension between what the scriptural text is plainly saying, and what religious readers take it to mean, is not new. Some of the ways in which theologians have handled and still handle this difficulty will be found applicable in feminist theological interpretation of the New Testament. But before these are considered the shape of the problem itself needs to be clarified.

It is a problem liable to confront any ideologically motivated interpretation of a very diverse collection of texts which is regarded by the interpreters as an authoritative source of their ideology (using that word in its non-pejorative sense). Marxists have problems with some of the things Marx said, and Freudians with some of their master's comments - both, significantly, in the light of more recently acknowledged feminist insights. In the interpretation of Scripture it is essentially a problem of theological interpretation. Christians are guided in their understanding of the gospel by an authoritative Scripture, and therefore have an interest in what the scripture actually says. Exegesis is therefore important. But even though it is typically individual passages which make an impact, Christians are never dependent on individual texts in isolation. They are dependent on their Scripture as a whole, which contains a very large collection of texts. But if they never see individual texts in isolation, neither do they in practice see Scripture 'as a whole', in isolation. They always see it already interpreted, and interpreted in terms of their own religious system. This kaleidoscope of texts is open to an infinite number of possible combinations, some of which yield Christian interpretations of the whole. These provide the lens through which, or framework in terms of which, they read all the individual parts of the bible.

Our problem is that of the relationship between the Christian framework and the individual texts, some of which in isolation may say things that contradict the framework. The reason this is a problem is that the framework in some sense depends on the individual texts, so it is impossible to reject many of these without eroding the framework, and weakening the actual criterion by which they are rejected. The problem seems most acute to Protestants because they insist on a very close relationship between their Christian framework and Scripture, though even they do not identify their framework with Scripture. Even fundamentalists work with a framework which has been shaped to fit a certain way of reading Scripture. The major dispute between theological interpreters is between those who think that every text must be fitted to their Christian framework (biblicists) and those who feel free to reject particular texts which conflict with this. The latter sub-divide between those who try to limit the damage of erosion done to their scriptural source (critical Protestants) and those who do not (liberals).

There is always a two-way traffic between the interpreter's theological framework and the historical exegesis of particular texts. The latter must be done as conscientiously as possible and be allowed to challenge, perhaps even alter, the framework which guides Christians' engagement with particular passages and their combinations of these with other passages. Theologians have to maintain a delicate balance, respecting what a particular text is saying, but also seeking to relate it to the larger system they are trying to clarify and communicate. Most Christians' theological framework is sufficiently supple to accommodate most of the New Testament without difficulty, but occasionally an issue arises, such as feminism and anti-Semitism in the West today, or totalitarianism, racialism, and the nuclear threat, which makes certain texts suddenly appear highly problematic to theologically responsible Christians.

Occasionally Christians may be persuaded by a particular text, or rather a particular understanding of a text, to revise their understanding of the gospel and what this requires of them. More usually their prior understanding of Christianity will outweigh any difficult text.(1) The theological importance of an exegesis which sets aside the larger Christian framework and sees each text in its original context is that this can sharpen the Church's listening to, and being challenged by, its Scripture. It can dismiss some interpretations as implausible, and help keep theology a matter of rational argument. But reinforcing the witness of individual texts and keeping theology responsibly self-critical does not (or should not) negate the interpreters' attempts to relate Scripture to their understanding of the gospel. It makes their task more difficult, but not impossible. Those who abandon the task as impossible, and stop trying to ground their Christianity in the Bible, may unintentionally lead the church away from the gospel. On the other hand, identifying the gospel with the letter of Scripture leads to impossible contradictions and even to sub-Christian conclusions. A critical middle way is needed, giving Scripture due weight but allowing us to question what it is saying.

That is what critical theological interpretation aims to provide, and since feminist theological interpretation is a form of this, the problems and procedures will be the same. The first task is to describe the interpretative framework, the second to allow this (as well as exegesis, with its alternative, historical framework) to influence our engagement with particular texts. 'Feminist-theological' implies a relationship between two different frameworks of systems or belief and values: Christianity and feminism. Reasons have been given for making Christianity the overarching framework here, while expecting the feminist case to influence this. What changes in Christian practice and belief (if any) the feminist movement should stimulate is a theological question about the essential nature and future shape of Christianity. This is debated and tested within the Christian community, partly through its attending to its Scripture and tradition, partly through its relating these to its on-going and developing experience, which includes the growth of a feminist consciousness inside and outside the Church. The converse question, how Christian insights might influence women's understanding of their experience, is better left for women theologians to discuss.

The two-way traffic in which theological frameworks and the exegesis of individual texts relate and sometimes collide, is part of the process through which the impact of feminism on traditional understandings of the gospel take place. But this interaction presupposes some preliminary definition of the framework, to which we now turn.

Christians' understanding of Christianity, i.e. their theological frameworks, are always provisional, open to new insights. On the other hand Christianity does have some defining characteristics without which a position can scarcely be deemed Christian at all. The claim that God, known in the Bible and Church, is decisively revealed in Jesus, is definitive. To move 'beyond' these parameters (as anyone must who thinks them incompatibic with the truth about human existence) is to part company with Christianity. But they are fairly wide parameters and have in the past proved sufficiently flexible to absorb new knowledge and moral insight. Their weakness has been that they are too flexible to preserve the identity of a religious community, and have had to be reinforced by further doctrinal clarification and institutional supports. But for our purposes of theological exploration the looseness and flexibility of this christological criterion is an advantage. The bottom line for Christians is the revelation of God in Jesus, but the whole range of modern knowledge and experience may be drawn into clarifying that, including whatever is right and true in feminism, which itself is a matter of exploration and experience, undertaken in a Christian context of listening attentively to Scripture. In this process some aspects of the Christian tradition and also some aspects of contemporary feminism may be confirmed, and other aspects of both criticised, in the light of the gospel as this is heard afresh when the tradition and the experience of the two movements are brought together.

If Christianity can be summed up in a sentence to identify the overarching framework, so can the movement which is challenging or claiming a voice in it. Feminism is women's struggle to be themselves, no longer defined in terms of their (subordinate) relationship to men. The demand for justice, especially equality of opportunity, and the keyword 'freedom', are expressions of that aspiration, and many Christians would say that this much at least corresponds to the good news of God that Jesus embodies.

But when Christians and other humanists say what they think is involved in humans being their true selves, conflicting visions emerge. Even such shared ideals as freedom and justice look different in the context of different world-views. All of us are opposed to human bondage, but different remedies imply different accounts of reality and different assessments of the human predicament. Talk of conversion, reconciliation and a relationship to God, implies a more pessimistic view of present realities and a more optimistic view of human possibilities than secular humanism can admit. Both sides value human freedom, but a freedom defined as the willing service of God in the Spirit looks very different from Enlightenment autonomy. Even justice, where Christianity has absorbed more of the Greek spirit, is far more than distributive justice if the compassionate God is our final norm.

The differences, however, should not be overstated. The Enlightenment owed much to Christian humanism, and modern Christianity has accepted as much of the rationalist critique as seemed justified. By altering some of its social and doctrinal stances it has both preserved the credibility of its claims and ensured that the remaining differences express a genuine alternative to the easy optimism of the age of reason and the bleak pessimism which follows, not a series of fossils from now discredited world-views. In this far from complete theological process, the encounter with feminism is currently the most important arena for Western Christianity.

As a modern emancipatory movement the most obvious roots of feminism lie in the European Enlightenment. They have not (as yet) produced an independent religious, moral or political system. Feminism has developed within the larger existing systems of modern Western humanism and has usually expressed its positive values through criticism of existing social structures and ideologies. Christianity and Judaism, even Marxism and psycho-analysis, have been subject to insider and outsider feminist criticism, but always piecemeal. They have not (as yet, anyway) been challenged by an alternative feminist view of the world. The movement is therefore still best defined in terms of what it opposes, namely the oppression of women and denials of their full humanity. The visions of humanity which it affirms are developments of the particular traditions in which it works as a leaven. When systematically unfolded the ideals of Christian feminists and Marxist feminists vary and even conflict. What unites them all is their opposition to a whole area in which all the different humanistic traditions of the West fall short of their own ideals.

If this is correct, it vindicates the decision to make Christianity our overarching framework, and also suggests a political dimension to the task of feminist theological interpretation. This interprets Scripture in ways which will persuade other Christians to repudiate and resist oppression. Christians say that the legitimate aspirations of feminism are better expressed within the (corrected) Christian system than elsewhere, and work to make that religious ideal a social reality.

But that leaves unanswered the crucial question of which aspirations are legitimate. There is theological disagreement here, which the Christian community seeks to resolve by listening to Scripture and reflecting on its corporate and personal experience, much of which it shares with the wider non-Christian world.

The critical area is evidently the relation between the sexes, especially within marriage, which Christianity values highly, and has some firm views on. The question is whether women's subordination is one of these firm views, as some biblical texts suggest.

Before looking at any of these texts, theologians need to be aware of their own Christian framework and the ways in which it may be modified by the texts. Any Christian framework or understanding of the gospel depends heavily on Scripture and may be influenced by the witness of individual texts. It is shaped by a long history of tradition and experience in which the Church's listening to Scripture has played a major role, but not the only role. The texts are filtered through our understanding of the gospel, even though in the process they might alter it. We approach the texts from where and what we are, our beliefs and attitudes shaped by a variety of factors. We can hold much of this in suspense, in order to hear what a text or another person is saying, but in some contexts it is important not to deny our preconceptions and responses. Some forms of address, including religious speech and other invitations to share a life, such as declarations of love, or challenges to one's value system, are directed at us so personally that it is important not to relegate them to the level of interesting historical information, even if the disciplines of historical method are necessary to decode them.

The Bible does not have to be read in this highly charged manner, and Christians do not usually read or hear most of the Bible as personal address. It is enough to recognise that a passage might become such. But that is the point at which it has most religious authority. The Bible contains historical information and doctrinal data relevant to its foundational role in Christianity, but a text is most powerfully authoritative for a Christian at the moments when it is felt actually to mediate divine revelation. There are different layers to the Christian use of the Bible. Both historical information and symbolic vocabulary are important in several different ways. But an individual text has supreme authority for an individual Christian only in those critical moments in which insight dawns and God is acknowledged, an event in which the believer stands himself or herself exposed. But they can adduce considerations which may help others to share their own understanding of the gospel and its relation to the text under consideration. What the text says is then taken up into the more personal question of what it says to me. That is subject to the necessary exegetical controls, but it is mainly influenced by what the interpreter brings to the text. This means that in approaching a text which seems to have some bearing on an issue (e.g. subordination within marriage or equality of the sexes), general reflections on both the question at issue and the gospel itself have priority, and may even override individual texts. Our brief discussion of that critical area must start with such general reflections.

Some differentiation of roles seems inescapable within marriage, and appropriate elsewhere, on account of biology. But neither child-bearing nor (typically) a degree of physical weakness implies inferiority, or even subordination, since status cannot for Christians be based on physical power. Partnership is self-evidently more appropriate in describing Christian understandings of marriage than male (or female) domination. But is it a partnership of equals, and what might that mean?

Equality is an Enlightenment ideal with less obvious Christian antecedents than freedom or justice. Like toleration, it might be an area where traditional religion can thank modernity for highlighting features present in its own tradition, and for pointing it towards authentic developments of that tradition. Equality of opportunity is implied by justice and is uncontroversial. Equality before God is basic Christian belief. Structures of domination can easily be shown to be contrary to the Christian profession. But hierarchical structures, including the subordination of women (at least within marriage), are not incompatible with notions of partnership and are strongly written into the Christian tradition.

This seems to be a point where some Christians' experience of marriage in the present-day West compels them to challenge earlier views and to claim that modern assumptions about equality of the sexes represent a moral advance. They cannot seriously entertain the notion that wives are junior partners, or subject in. a one-sided way to their husbands. They must therefore suppose that biblical passages enjoining subordination are simply reflecting social situations that no longer obtain. They may admit that the tradition contains a wealth of wisdom and experience, and should not be set aside lightly. But any attempt to recommend patriarchy simply on appeal to certain texts will be suspected of legitimating one's own interests or preferences.

However, a simple appeal to experience is as unsatisfactory here as a simple appeal to biblical texts. Neither is a Christian theological argument unless it is based on an understanding of what Christianity is, based as that is on both tradition (including Scripture) and experience. Even if we make most of our provisional theological judgments intuitively it is necessary then to argue a case for their being true to the gospel. This includes appealing to the tradition and accounting for those parts of it which support the opposite viewpoint. That is the spade-work of theological interpretation. The adjective 'feminist' simply specifies a particular area which developments in Western society and culture have placed high on our theological agenda. Theological interpretation (feminist, other liberationist, or quite different attempts to develop the tradition in the light of new Christian experience of living the gospel) can be directed at any part of the ever-expanding tradition. That is why 'church history' as well as biblical studies can be a theological discipline. But clearly Scripture is in principle the most authoritative and normative part of the tradition, and in practice the most read or heard. Since Christians understand their experience partly in terms of these texts (or some of them), it is particularly important that they be heard in appropriate ways, and misleading passages challenged in the light of the gospel.

The less our experience is comparable to that of our ancestors, the less direct guidance Scripture is likely to provide, and the more likely its models are to be misleading. That is one reason for theological interpretation preferring theological argument about individual passages to the 'women's history' approach to the New Testament suggested by the hegemony of historical study in modern biblical scholarship. It can also be argued that the ways in which Paul's epistles are authoritative for subsequent Christianity do not imply that first-century church history is authoritative. It is Paul's symbol system which has become normative, and this can be (and usually is) assimilated by Christians who do not know much biblical criticism. Christ crucified and risen, as the decisive moment in which God was reconciling the world, or God's saving righteousness having been and being revealed, and this constituting a new covenant and community into which believers are baptised, receive his Spirit, share his risen life, and look for his coming glory - these are not necessarily matters for historical criticism. Historical study can throw some light on the background of these symbols and so nourish our reflection on them. It can also help justify our theological criticism of some details. But its main contribution to theology is at the level of exegesis, which benefits from historical understanding, rather than in New Testament theology or symbolics, which is the Church's primary interest in these texts. Since, however, in practice one of the ways in which Scripture makes its impact is through its supposed historical models, 'feminist historical reconstructions' of Israel and Christian origins have pragmatic value. But they risk reinforcing a theologically unsatisfactory way of reading Scripture. The most theol' jically valuable parts of Elizabeth Schiissler Fiorenza's important book (2) are not (I suggest) her methodological arguments or her larger historical proposals, but her engagement with particular texts. Such helpful phrases as 'partnership of equals', 'discipleship of equals' and 'the praxis of equal discipleship', which can today function as tests of Christian orthopraxy, are (rightly) as much brought to the texts, as deduced from the historical reconstructions.

Because feminist theological interpretation, rightly reflecting some modern experience of living the gospel, is bound to be critical of much of the tradition, it is worth sketching some of the ways in which such 'critical theological interpretation' (Sachkritik) has been done without reference to new feminist insights. It is my contention that the same procedures are relevant to listening for the gospel in Scripture, in the light of contemporary feminist sensibility.

The main problem posed by the Bible for Christian theology has always been how to make Christian sense of passages which seem plainly sub-Christian. One solution is to adopt an alternative exegesis, which is less offensive. Thus the 'little ones' to be 'dashed against the rock' in Psalm 137 are referred by Augustine to the individual's own sins, which have to be rooted out, not to Babylonian toddlers. This imposes a genuine Christian meaning on a text whose true meaning is sub-Christian. But allegorical exegesis has run into problems of plausibility in a more historically conscious age, though at the personal devotional level, where no theological (i.e. public) argument is being built, it is widely accepted as a legitimate device for stirring the religious imagination. It never was 'hard' enough to support a theological argument, as Augustine and Aquinas recognised, (3) but it provided a way out of a difficulty which arose from the way scriptural authority and inspiration were once understood. Today we accept that the production of the Bible by fallible human authors and editors involves various imperfections, and explain moral imperfections and other errors in that way, even though this reduces the authority of Scripture and weakens its impact.

The point here (contrary to Origen) is that all Scripture has a literal meaning, but it does not all have a Christian theological meaning. Theological discernment includes recognising where a passage does not apply to ourselves, and also when it does not, since some passages can lie dormant for generations and then burst into theological relevance, as Galatians 3.28 has recently done. While admitting that not all biblical texts are likely to illuminate contemporary Christian experience, and insisting that to demand this is to misunderstand the nature of the gospel and the work of the Spirit, we may nevertheless add that it is wise for theological interpreters to look for such illumination, because that is how reflection on biblical texts activates theological reflection and motivates Christian responses. Possessing a 'Scripture' means keeping these texts on the theological agenda, even though certain problems then remain prominent and procedures for handling them are necessary. Occasional difficulties about the content of Scripture keep interpreters awake, and Origen thought this providential.

Limiting the damage done by sub-Christian texts is sometimes a matter of passing them over as not applicable. But where they are appealed to in support of what we think perversions of the gospel, more drastic action is needed. This can be positive or negative.

It is sometimes possible to neutralise dangerous texts by suggesting a less offensive but equally plausible alternative exegesis. That sounds corrupt, and would be if it were a matter of evading what the text is saying. But sometimes it is simply impossible to be sure about that, and one exegesis looks as good as another. The price of accepting this is again a reduction in the text's power to sustain an argument. But again, that is only one, relatively rare, function of Scripture. More usually Scripture works for us by informing us, or else sparking insights in a process where the interpreters themselves bring something to the production of meaning. Even faulty exegesis can (happily) do this, though it must be abandoned when (if) it is recognised to be faulty.

An example of this choosing the better theology is Fiorenza's explanation of'on account of the angels' at 1 Corinthians 11.10: 'Since the angels are present in the pneumatic worship service of a community that speaks "the tongues of angels", women should not worship as cultically unclean persons by letting their hair down but should pin it up as a sign both of their spiritual power and of their control over their heads' (p. 228). Nobody knows for sure what the phrase means, and Fiorenza is justified in choosing a plausible suggestion which happens to be more positive about women in church than the idea of a Genesis 6 echo (which may possibly reflect some male exegetes' unconscious desires). Women have spiritual power, not just sex-appeal. Not surprisingly, this route of choosing the least offensive plausible exegesis is mostly taken by conservative Protestants who wish to maximise the relevance and authority of Scripture. Liberals may even prefer the exegesis that is more difficult for theology, as part of their short-sighted campaign to reduce this dependence of the Church on Scripture.

Theological interpretation generally seeks to relate individual texts to their original historical frame of reference and to the interpreter's own theological framework. The theological difficulty of some texts can be reduced by careful attention to their historical context. The situation and context may extenuate an offensive remark or reveal that the author's concern was not that of the interpreter. Paul is not promulgating a dogma of women's subordination in 1 Corinthians 11.2-16. He takes it for granted, but does not argue it in terms of the gospel itself. Conversely, the theological fruitfulness of other texts is reduced by a better exegetical understanding. Job 19.25 cannot be used as an argument for the resurrection of Jesus, though it can still be read by Christians (with Handel) as an evocative pointer to that. Modern exegetical methods have significantly advanced the Church's on-going reflection on its Scripture, but this has necessitated a more precise account of the different ways in which Scripture can be used.

One complicating result of modern history of traditions research is that we see some texts as multi-layered. This greatly increases the exegetical possibilities, because we can sometimes ask what a text meant to its final editor(s), and what at earlier stages of the tradition; including, in the case of the Gospels, what some sayings meant to the historical Jesus. Since this is usually rather speculative, it again fails to carry much weight in argument. But there is something artificial about B.S. Childs' suggestion that only the final canonical level has theological authority. Jesus has more authority than Matthew, though (arguably) Matthew and Luke more than their hypothetical source Q. The potential contained in history of traditions research for criticising a biblical text in the (half-)light of earlier forms of a tradition is fruitfully illustrated by Fiorenza (pp. 143-6). Luke's redactional addition of 'wife' to the list of relations a disciple might have to leave introduces an androcentric bias into Jesus' saying (compare Luke 14.26 and 18.29b with Mark 10.29b). Again, behind Mark10.2-9 and 12.18-27, Fiorenza argues, Jesus in effect criticised patriarchal marriage. She thinks the point of 12.25 is abolition not of sexual differentiation in heaven but of the patriarchy sustained by levirate marriage.

These examples are not all equally persuasive, and feminist or any other theological interpretation is a matter of using rational arguments to persuade others to read an authoritative text one way rather than another. These examples all involved an element of rationally justified criticism of the text as it stands. They have therefore prepared us for the most drastic way of dealing with texts which seem sub-Christian: simply to reject them as incompatible with one's understanding of the gospel. Interpreters here allow their own rational judgment, moral sense, and understanding of the gospel, informed as this is (in part) by Scripture itself, to provide the criterion by which a particular text is judged, and judged negatively.

Only a biblicist who identifies the gospel with Scripture, or asserts the infallibility of Scripture, can forbid this in principle. But others are rightly wary of cutting off the branch they are standing on, or killing the plant in pruning it, or disposing of a valuable branch. Too easy a rejection of the witness of a text loses its capacity to challenge one's (always provisional) understanding of the gospel. But there is no contradiction in both appealing to Scripture as a whole and yet challenging particular passages. To those who would like to see Matthew 27.25 expunged or Psalm 137.8-9 etc. placed in brackets, the warning of Revelation 21.29 against excisions is germane. But theological criticism is not surgery. The offending texts continue to be heard and questioned. But reasons are given for suggesting that they are wrong, and to be discounted by Christians. The interpreter's theological convictions here outweigh the individual text. How often this can happen without doing unacceptable damage to the authority of Scripture is a further question.

The theological criticism of individual texts, here defended in principle, offers a middle way between biblicism and the liberal tendency to give contemporary secular experience decisive weight as against Scripture and tradition. That perennial confrontation between conservative and liberal theology has surfaced again in the distinction between 'biblical feminists' (mainly Evangelicals),(4) and 'liberal Christian feminists'.(5) The middle way is both evangelical and critical. It reflects Earth's Sachexegese (exegesis concerned with the theological content), as corrected by Bultmann to include Sachkritik (criticising individual texts in the light of that same theological content). It emphasises the Christian dependence on Scripture, but insists that Christ, not Scripture as such, is the decisive revelation of God, and that contemporary experience plays an important role in our apprehension of Christ and the Spirit in Scripture. Some Evangelical theology seems to be moving in this direction, while still retaining a strongly biblical shape to its framework.(6) Other Christians travel more lightly, maintaining an orthodox (incarnational) framework, but willing to consign more of the tradition to the history books.

Theological interpretation is best done by studying individual texts because these are what make a direct impact, not the (more or less helpful) constructions of historians and biblical theologians. Exegetical study clarifies the witness of each text, but the relationship to the interpreter's framework is decisive. Here, as in moral theology, 'conscience is always to be followed'. Unless wrestling with a difficult text actually changes our understanding of the gospel (which is very rare) this prior understanding will carry most weight. In our second example a problem text has in the last resort to be overruled. But theological interpretation, the context in which the impact of feminism on Christianity is here being set, also underlines passages which seem to offer positive support. In both cases the historical and exegetical debate about what a text might have meant to the writer is taken up into theological reflection about how it is best to be understood today.

'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is not slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus.' Galatians 3.28 demands to be given considerable weight because in context it looks like a doctrinal statement concerning the very nature of Christianity. But the question of its possible meaning for Paul, and for modern interpreters, is complex, involving exegetical arguments and even a theory of religion, because what Paul meant by 'in Christ' can scarcely be articulated without one. If the exegetical debate is inconclusive, this does not matter. Theological interpreters can live with exegetical uncertainty. The debate helps them look at the text from several angles, increasing the possibility that connections with their own understanding of the gospel may crystallise, and the text thus nudge them in a Christian direction, maybe even supporting action which Paul himself did not take.

Paul's theological language is today perhaps best understood in the context of a theory of religion as a system of symbols.(7) The critical question for the modern Christian reader is how far the symbolic language of the gospel contained in Scripture should be shaping social realities today. Some think it only meaningful when it is changing the world. At the other extreme it is possible to confine it to the believer's personal relationship to God, without revolutionary, though not without conservative, social consequences. Paul is clear that there is a strong relationship between at least some of his symbolic or theological language and the social realities of the community. The whole point of his epistle is to persuade his hearers to draw practical conclusions from his theological argument about Torah no longer applying in the new creation in Christ, or new age of faith and the Spirit. Tn Christ' such differences as Jew-Gentile, slave-free, male-female, do not exist, whatever the situation in the Roman empire. And his argument is that the empirical church should correspond at the social level to the symbolic or theological reality, not to the empirical realities of the world outside Christ - at least so far as the then current issue was concerned.

But Paul draws no such radical conclusions from his parallel symbolic statement that in Christ there is no 'male and female', and what he writes in 1 Corinthians suggests some ambivalence about this. He does draw some conclusions elsewhere from the abolition at the symbolic level of slave-free, though not the radical conclusions which most Christians now see implied by it. That implication of the Christian gospel only became self-evident when the time was ripe, and even then at first only to a minority - who set out to persuade others. To many Christians today it is equally clear that Paul's repudiation of social, racial and gender distinctions at the symbolic level must have social consequences also with respect to gender. It is not possible to deduce this from Scripture. Being led by the Spirit in listening to Scripture is less mechanical or logical than that. Inspiration involves imagination as much as reason.

Neither is it possible to infer what the consequences should be. These require further theological discussion, stimulated by exegesis of the scriptural tradition as well as by contemporary experience. But the way Paul came to his conclusion about Gentiles is instructive for contemporary Christians thinking about a different, though seemingly parallel issue.

Paul knows already that Gentiles can be Christians without being circumcised or observing the food laws. He has seen it done, and this reality has found symbolic expression in his new theological framework. But he has to persuade others, and that requires rational theological argument from tradition (especially Scripture) and experience. His opponents have a strong case based on tradition, i.e. Scripture. The law of Moses was, after all, God-given, and Jesus the Jewish Messiah. Gentiles were now coming in as prophesied, but presumably they must be circumcised. Even Abraham, having believed, went on to be circumcised.

Against this, Paul knows he is right, and that to accede to his opponents' demands would be to surrender the freedom of life in the Spirit, which the gospel of God in Jesus had established. But he needs a strong argument, rooted in the nature of the gospel, and providing an alternative reading of the tradition. He starts from his understanding of the gospel and will not allow Scripture or tradition to override that (unless persuaded he is wrong), but he still needs the tradition, without which his gospel can be neither expressed nor believed. Religious talk of God generally depends on a previously existing tradition. It is therefore necessary to interpret the tradition afresh in the light of his understanding of the gospel.

Paul's argument from Scripture looks weak (or unintelligible) to anyone not already persuaded, and familiar with rabbinic rules of exegesis. But what seems to the modern historically-trained exegete arbitrary is not so distant from how Scripture is usually heard by Christians: isolated texts can stir a religious response, including sometimes a theological, reflective response. Paul finds support for his conviction in a handful of texts, seized on to construct a fresh reading of the tradition. Genesis 15.6 and Habakkuk 2.4 (and only those two texts) associate right-ness with God with faith, and in them Paul finds support for his understanding of the new relationship to God in Christ. In the course of his discussion he let slip a remark, barely germane to his own argument, which some modern theologians have in a similar way seized on to support what they think is a Spirit-led modern growth in Christian insight: 'There is no male and female'.

They may be right in believing this. The Church has to keep chewing on the text and on other tradition and new experience until the truth of the gospel becomes clear and the right way forward found in a particular dispute such as the terms of admission for Gentiles, divorcees, homosexuals; the abolition of slavery, apartheid, social and ecclesiastical hierarchies; the ordination of members of groups excluded in sections of the Church (in Greece, those who cannot sing; in Rome, married men; in Alexandria and later canon law, eunuchs; in Hippolytus' part of Rome, slaves; in England (at the time of writing) those who have married a divorcee; in Wales, remarried men; in some Christian churches, all women). On none of these or other contemporary questions does Scripture give ready-made answers. It is not a set of instructions rendering superfluous the promise of the Spirit leading disciples into all truth. The Church does not need proof-texts to authorise or prohibit new developments. It dares to experiment and discern which developments in thought and practice are authentic expressions of the gospel, and which are not. A single text may help crystallise new experience into an expression of the gospel, and so give a nudge to new developments.

Galatians 3.28 has for many proved suggestive in this way. It does not provide an unambiguous argument for ordaining women. Paul was not discussing that, and Scripture is not a collection of proof-texts which can by-pass the interpreter's understanding of the gospel. But we may hear it as gospel when we attend to it in the light of our provisional understanding of this. One form of that is experienced when our study of a text takes off into a sermon. Exegetical controls are still important, but the connections then being made are with other things in the interpreter's knowledge and experience, not (essentially) with the historical context. It is not historical learning that speaks of God and makes a biblical interpreter into a theologian, though this can help teach her to be a critical theologian.

The argument about the ordination of women, for example (and it is important to focus theological interpretation on specific issues sometimes), is not settled or even appropriately introduced by appealing to Scripture. The argument is firstly about the enrichment this will bring to the ordained ministry, both in understanding the gospel from a wider experiential base, and in the quality of leadership. It is also about the possible distortion (not merely impoverishment) of such an unrepresentative ministry as a single-sex one appears today. Granted the obvious reason for going ahead, it is secondly necessary to ask 'Why not?' - or 'What prevents?' (cf. Acts 8.36). The arguments from Scripture apparently marshalled against Paul's innovation (8) by opponents whom in retrospect we judge to have been blind to what the Spirit was now doing new, are instructive here. There is thirdly the question of timing, which held William Temple back in 1917. It is related to, but not to be confused with, the question of the truth of the gospel. Paul's guidance on the weak and the strong is relevant here, as is his refusal to allow concessions to weakness to be twisted into denials of the freedom of the gospel (Rom. 14, 1 Cor. 8-10).

In these discussions the Church seeks as always to listen for the gospel in Scripture. The inconclusiveness of some exegetical argument can help keep the texts in the forefront of discussion. All the important points about Galatians 3.28 are plain to any thoughtful reader of Galatians, but the specialist debates of New Testament scholars(9) offer a few extra arguments to both sides of the current controversy, and so hold the text up to on-going scrutiny while contemporary reflection on the gospel matures.

The discussion aims to throw light on what Paul means by 'no male and female'. One option is to stress the parallel with the other phrases, and since sexual, social and racial distinctions still exist in the real world, to argue that Paul is saying no more than that all are equal in the sight of God. Against this, he is clearly arguing for a correspondence between what is the case 'in Christ' and policies adopted in the Church. However, he does not argue for these in two of the three areas mentioned, and this makes the verse's meaning uncertain. Attempted solutions centre on the probability that Paul in this verse is quoting a baptismal liturgy; on the probable echo of Genesis 1.27 in the switch to 'male and female'; and on the significance of his dropping the phrase at 1 Corinthians 12.13 and (if by Paul) Colossians 3.10. It is possible that the (hypothetical) original formula considers distinctions that carried weight in the old order abolished in the new. Even Paul can say that 'in Christ there is new creation' (or 'a new creature': 2 Corinthians 5.17), and some of the Corinthians' behaviour would be explicable as unisex implications drawn from such a belief. Jesus also may have been understood to deny gender difference in the new age (Mark 12.25), which the Corinthians apparently thought they had already entered.

It is instructive that Paul can (probably) quote a tradition that he is not entirely happy with, and also in effect criticise it. Modern interpreters do the same. But there is no need to follow this discussion through to any conclusion, because the point is that this will still be doubtful, and that even if it were strong enough in principle to bear theological weight, opposite conclusions could be drawn from it, some arguing that Paul had reservations about the liturgical tradition, others that he quoted it anyway. Neither side can draw clear guidance for today, but in the course of discussing the passage from every possible angle, Christians looking for the meaning of the gospel in their present local situation may grow in, and come to, the agreement they seek.

At least they can be freed from misusing Scripture in such a way that awkward texts block Christian growth in insight, as when fundamentalists deduce from 1 Corinthians 14.34 that women should not preach (or read the lesson?) in church. 1 Timothy 2.12 is a more serious problem, because less unclear. It is no help to say it is not by Paul, or that 1 Corinthians 14.34 is possibly an interpolation, because they remain part of Scripture. The reason for theological criticism of 1 Timothy 2.11-15 is that theologically speaking (i.e. from the perspective of contemporary Christian faith), it is nonsense, dangerous nonsense, and nonsense on stilts.

Modern theologians convinced of the equality of the sexes must give reasons for discounting those texts (10) which support the subordination of women, reasons based on their understanding of the gospel, which in principle includes their whole understanding of reality. We may conclude with another problem text.

1 Corinthians 11.2-16 is so riddled with exegetical ambiguities that it would in any case be difficult to draw from it firm conclusions about hats or hairstyles, should one wish to do so. But sexual differentiation is insisted upon in an appeal to nature, reinforced by an appeal to scriptural tradition. If anything is warranted by this passage it is sexual differentiation, and as it contradicts the hypothetical pre-canonical meaning of Galatians 3.28, it could reasonably be appealed to against this, if any such neutralisation were necessary. Unfortunately, in the course of casting around in Scripture and experience for arguments in support of what he knows is right as well as expedient, Paul introduced the note of subordination that is frankly incredible to many Christians today. That is present in verses 3 and 7, whatever is meant about the angels in verse 10. Even when the supporting argument of verse 8 ('for a man is not out of a woman but a woman out of a man') is discounted as not helping the case, the offending statements stand, though only as a supporting argument, unable to claim the weight to be accorded to the passage's concern with sexual differentiation. They stem from Paul's culturally conditioned mental furniture and can be set aside without disagreeing with his understanding of the gospel. Unlike Galatians 3.28 they do not belong intrinsically to an argument about the nature of Christianity. A further cause of relief is verse 11, where the note of reciprocity qualifies the subordination with an insistence on partnership, as at Colossians 3.19. Another is verse 16, where Paul in effect admits that his arguments lack cogency, and falls back on to an appeal to his apostolic authority and general Christian custom. So the note of women's subordination is present, but it cannot be allowed to outweigh our understanding of the gospel, which in the experience of many Christians today demands a new respect for the equality of the sexes.

These brief remarks, bypassing a number of exegetical problems, are intended to suggest that awkward passages can be challenged by critical theological interpretation (whether feminist or any other kind) without denying what they are saying. Their force can be relativised and minimised by setting them (so far as this is possible) in their original context. But the nub of our argument has been to resist a biblicist approach to Scripture while insisting on the centrality of Scripture for hearing the gospel. The gospel is the criterion by which Scripture is assessed, and if necessary we may with Luther 'urge Christ against Scripture'. The biblical theologian who was prepared to do that attended as closely to Scripture as anyone. But he was a theological interpreter, and that means a critical interpreter, one who can tell the difference between the law (or tradition) and the gospel, namely Christ. If a feminist can do that 'she can thank God and know that she is a theologian'.(11)


1. The best discussion of this whole area is D. Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture m Recent Theology (Fortress and SCM, 1975).

2. In Memory of Her (SCM Press, London, 1983).

3. Summa Theologiae, 1.1.30, citing Augustine, Contra Vincent, Donatist. 48.

4. See K. Keay (ed.), Men and Women and God (Marshall, Morgan and Scott, Basingstoke, 1987).

5. E.g. E.S. Fiorenza, Rosemary Ruether, Phyllis Bird, Phyllis Trible, Bernadette Brooten, A.Y. Collins, C. Osiek. See A.Y. Collins (ed.)

Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship (Scholars Press, Chico, 1985) which includes Jewish contributions.

6. E.g. Andrew Kirk, 'Theology from a Feminist Perspective' in K. Keay, op. cit.

7. C. Geertz's essay on 'Religion as a Cultural System' (1963), reprinted in The Interpretation of Cultures (Basic Books, New York, 1973), is influential in recent theology.

8. Cf. C.K. Barrett, Essays on Paul (SPCK, 1982) pp. 154-70.

9. See D.R. MacDonald, There is no Male and Female (Fortress, Philadelphia, 1987) for a full discussion of the alternatives.

10. See also Eph. 5.22-4 and the discussion in J.P. Sampley, 'And the Two Shall Become One Flesh': A Study of Traditions in Eph. 5.21-33 (Cambridge, 1971). 1 Pet. 3.1 is less of a problem because not theologically underwritten.

11. Weimar Ausgabe Vol 40, 1; 207, 17f., changing the gender. See G. Ebeling, Luther (Fontana, 1972), p. 111. Chapters 6 and 7 are as important for the argument of this essay as is the practice of my other hermeneutics teacher, Ernst Kasemann, whose position on this is usefully explained by B. Ehler, Die Herrschaft des Gekreuzigten (De Gruyter, Berlin, 1986), pp. 7-155.

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